Talking Blue Highway

Alaska’s Lynn Canal is actually a natural waterway, a breathtaking  fjord  that connects Juneau to the outside world. It is also at the epicenter of another Alaskan controversy, centered on the proposed Lynn Canal Highway Project. The plan is to extract 13 million cubic yards of rock from the canal’s eastern shoreline to run a 51 mile highway to the state capital. The road–which would be the only one into Juneau– would cross two river systems, 61 avalanche chutes, and acres of untouched wilderness. Not surprisingly, there is fierce opposition. Stephen Mick, a filmmaker from Austin, Texas, set out to shoot an adventure video with the sunglass maker Costa Del Mar and wound up making a documentary about this story. Here, Mick answers some questions about “Blue Highway,” the finished documentary set to debut next Friday at the Teva Mountain Games.

What prompted you to put together a documentary about this issue?

The film was originally going to be more about a sea kayak adventure retracing the route of John Muir, who many consider to be the father of modern conservation. His Travels In Alaska, and our relationship with the Alaska Mountain Guides led us to choose the Lynn Canal as the piece of his adventure that we would try to re-create. The road issue was certainly something we were familiar with through AMG, but the original plan was for it to be a smaller segment in a larger adventure/fishing film.

As we got closer and closer to the start of our trip, the weather kept getting worse and worse. By the time we got to Juneau, a storm had formed that filled the Gulf of Alaska, but we decided that we’d give it a go anyway and take our chances. Once we got in the boats and reached Berners Bay, it was pretty clear we weren’t going any further. Five-foot seas in a sea kayak just weren’t our idea of a good time. So we loaded up and paddled back to Juneau. This was really when we decided that the road project was a bigger story that needed to be told, and we spent the rest of our time in Alaska trying to meet and talk to as many people as we could to help us tell that story.

In the pre-release information and from the trailer, it appears you go to great lengths to tell both sides of the story. Do you (and your sponsor Costa Del Mar) have a viewpoint on this or are you intent on letting the viewer draw his or her own conclusions?

As a filmmaker, I think it’s hard to keep your personal feelings out of any film. That said, we certainly tried hard to not only bring opinions from both sides of the issue to light, but to allow those on both sides to make the points they felt were important. The arguments on both sides have merit, and I don’t think it serves anyone to create a film that sits so obviously on one side of the fence. Now I have my opinion, and I think people would be surprised to find out what it is and why I believe it. But viewers should always be free to find their own point of view through a film like this. Most importantly, wherever people find themselves on the issue, I hope they’re moved enough to act on those feelings by voicing their support or opposition to the project directly to Alaska’s Governor.

Between this “Road to Nowhere,” the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” that surfaced in the last presidential race, and the Bristol Bay controversy, Alaska seems to be the national focal point of the conflict between the 20th century notion of progress and the 21st century ethic of preservation and sustainability. What is it about Alaska that draws people to both sides?

The great thing about Alaska is that’s it’s filled with natural beauty and seemingly endless wilderness. This has attracted sportsmen, adventurers and others who want to enjoy that beauty, and in some cases, protect it from any and all development. The great thing about Alaska is that it’s incredibly rich in valuable natural resources. This has always attracted those who are willing to invest their hard work and in some cases vast sums of money, to help remove whatever resources they can benefit from. Gold. Oil. Copper. The question becomes can we reconcile the motivations of both groups?

$400 million, the estimated cost of the project, seems like a lot to pay for a 51 mile road benefiting about 35,000 people–or about half the crowd at a pro football game. Are there valid economic arguments for doing so? Are there ways the money could be better spent?

The economics of life in Alaska’s “southeast” are difficult to say the least. Juneau and the other communities are so isolated, and travel between them is expensive and inconvenient. The ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway connect the communities, but the ferry system is costly to run. Each year the operating costs of the ferry system far outstrip the income, and new ferries can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. These costs fall mostly to the state to cover, a burden some feel could be lessened by building the road. Also, in today’s economy, the road itself could become an industry, with jobs created to build, maintain and repair the road. And when you factor in the idea (whether you believe it or not) that not building the road could result in the capital being moved out of Juneau, the economic issues become complex to say the least.

On the other hand, most of the money used to build the road would come from the federal government, specifically the near-bankrupt Federal Highway Trust Fund. So, even if you believe that the road will cost what some people say it will cost, there’s still the question of who pays for it. It’s not as simple as saying there’s other projects we could better spend the money on, because the money doesn’t really exist.

The debate over the road aside, can you share a little about experiencing the natural beauty of the Lynn Canal from a kayak?

To be honest, Alaska has more natural beauty than I think most people could even imagine. The Lynn Canal is definitely a piece of that beauty that many people get to enjoy from the water, whether in cruise ships, Alaska Marine Highway ferries or in sea kayaks like we were. But what really struck me wasn’t the beauty we found on the water, it was the complete wilderness and isolation we discovered on land and in the air. The terrain in and around Berners Bay is totally unspoiled, and two steps into the woods quickly take you a few notches down the food chain. From a float plane, it hardly seems real. Steep mountainsides that disappear into blue water. Forests in every shade of green. Lakes high above the Lynn Canal full of fish. Seeing the area from the water is spectacular, but I’d hope that anyone who visits the area takes the opportunity to get off the water and into the real wilderness that’s all around.

After talking to people with passionate views on both sides of the issue, do you believe there’s a middle ground?

I hope so. But I have to be realistic. The death of true debate around this issue seems to mirror a similar lack of interest in finding common ground our society faces on many issues. We have voices on either side of any debate arguing and shouting, urging the rest of us to choose sides rather than to come together to talk about our differences. The end result is polarization and paralysis. What people need to remember is that on any issue, there are always those who find themselves somewhere in between, and are willing to listen to logic and reason. Those are the people that need to be more involved in debates like this, and I hope “Blue Highway” brings at least some of them to the table so that their voices can be heard.

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